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Accessory work for powerlifting
We can define accessory work as everything you do within a training session after the completion of the main exercise or exercises, which will usually consist of the competition lifts or close variations. Traditionally, accessory work can be understood as higher repetition ‘’bodybuilding’’ exercises, or, sometimes, as conditioning training.
Now, several factors have an influence on how accessory work should be organized. These factors are the demands of the sport itself; your level as a lifter and training age; your strengths and weaknesses; training phases; and health.
If you are training to be as good as you can for the sport of powerlifting, the structure of your training should be centered around the development of strength and proficiency in the competition movements rather than the balanced development of every major muscle group in your body.
In powerlifting, hypertrophy does play an important role, as it has a positive influence on the development of maximal strength. However, it’s crucial to keep in mind that powerlifting is a sport with definite tasks, not a ‘’heavy bodybuilding’’ training split. This means that, if you are training to be as good as you can for the sport of powerlifting, the structure of your training should be centered around the development of strength and proficiency in the competition movements rather than the balanced development of every major muscle group in your body. Remember that you are training to express maximal strength in the squat, bench press and deadlift on the precise day of the competition, nothing more, nothing less. The muscles that should be the main focus of your accessory work then, are the erectors, glutes, hamstrings, quads, chest and triceps.
The time you’ve been training as well as your level in the sport have an impact on the accessory work you should be doing. As a rule of thumb, the more advanced you are, the less you should stray away from the competition lifts and their close variations. When you’re starting out, however, it’s a good idea to use a broad variation of exercises to develop a solid base. For more information on this concept, we invite you to take a look at our article on exercise variation and training transfer.
As for strengths and weaknesses, this one is pretty straightforward: take advantage of your strengths and make sure you’re working on bringing your weak points up to par. Accessory work should accomplish both, especially during distinct training phases.
Further away from competition, it is intelligent to focus on weaknesses. It’s the perfect time to use lighter weights and difficult positions to bring up lagging body parts or fix movement issues. As you get closer to competition, however, the focus of your accessory work should be on taking advantages of your strengths. This means using the exercises that you know yield the best improvements to your competition squat, bench press and deadlift in the final block before a meet. For more information on the organization of training for powerlifting, you can consult our article on periodization for powerlifting.
Health is an important factor as well, as it has an influence on longevity in the sport. In that regard, using exercises that have no direct correlation to strength improvement on the competition lifts can be acceptable. The important thing to keep in mind is that your body can’t properly adapt to everything at once, as its recovery abilities are limited. Hence, health oriented accessory exercises should be used further away from competition, when they won’t take away from the development of maximal strength.
Putting it all together, the picture looks something like this:
- When you are starting out, in addition to technique work, use a wide variety of multi joints and isolation exercises for all body parts to develop a strong base and ensure joint integrity.
- As you get more advanced, your focus should shift almost exclusively on accessory work that has a strong positive correlation to maximal strength development in the competition lifts, with the exception of certain exercises for prehabilitation and/or rehabilitation.
- Plan the degree of specificity of your accessory work according to your competition schedule: the closer you get to a meet, the less the exercises you use should differ in form and function from the competition lifts.
One final question can be addressed here: how important is it to progress in weight in the accessory exercises?
The answer is related to the degree of specificity of the exercise. For example, hitting a personal record on lat pulldown won’t do much for your squat performance. Being able to use heavier weights on a close grip bench press, however, will probably yield direct strength gains on your competition bench press. Keep in mind that, if you’re a powerlifter, your focus should be on getting stronger in the three lifts. No need to major in the minors, as they say.